Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sidewalk encounters with other dogs

Trooper is an exceptionally friendly dog. He always wants to give folks a big hello. Same with other dogs we pass on the sidewalk. He strains at the leash, wagging his tail madly, ready to play.

Is this a problem for a service dog? It certainly would be if Trooper had been trained as a guide dog for the blind. That behavior could discombobulate an unsighted person.

But he is a hearing dog for the deaf, and his duties are to alert me to sounds such as a door knock, the phone, the call of my name.

Still, service dogs are expected to be calm and collected in public, aren’t they? Trooper always is when we’re in a restaurant or rail station waiting room. He lies quietly on the floor. 

But meet another dog on the sidewalk and he’s up for grabs. Good thing he weighs only 17 pounds and is easily controlled with the leash.

We allow him to play with our sons’ dogs when we visit them. With them he tears in mad abandon about the back yard and play-fights in the house. Is this bad? Does it encourage inappropriate interaction on the sidewalk? Or am I worried about nothing?

I decided to ask Laura, Trooper’s original trainer at Dogs for the Deaf in Oregon. This was her response:

“In a perfect world with a robot dog, yes, dogs should be absolutely controlled around other dogs.  

“I believe a working dog deserves to have ‘off’ time, just as a human worker does.  You cannot expect a living being to work constantly.  I feel a good balance of work and play makes a well-rounded service dog.  I think his interactions with your sons’ dogs is perfectly normal for a dog, and if he was forbidden to have contact with other dogs, they could become like 'forbidden fruit.'

“On that note, if you find that Trooper is becoming too distracted by other dogs, you may want to practice some obedience in high-distraction areas with high-value rewards.  The key to this is bringing his focus back to you and making yourself, the giver of the good treats, more interesting than the dogs.”

(“High-value treats,” Laura added, are juicy things “like pieces of hot dog, baby carrots, bits of cheese, small moist smelly things from the pet store.”)

On our next walk I’ll carry a few bits of cubed cheese and see how that works.

It may be difficult, however, not to sample them myself. I am hard to train.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Looming in the doorway

Trooper is still startled easily when doors to elevators and rooms suddenly open and someone looms in the entryway. (So am I.)

He growls and, if the looming figure appears sufficiently menacing, barks. (I don't bark. I just jump.)

This is not proper public behavior for a service dog. Trooper needs to grow out of it.

Yesterday we hit upon a solution for one common situation: the doctor's office. You know how when you're waiting in a tiny exam room for the doctor to arrive, you almost nod off, and suddenly the door opens.

Now I'm asking the nurse who leads me there and takes my history to leave the door open when she goes out. There is always traffic past the door, and Trooper's not so surprised when the doctor appears in the flow. Sometimes he even wags his tail.

A small step, but an important one.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Too clever by half

Trooper is a smart cookie, even for a service dog. He has figured out how to snooker me into feeding him prematurely.

He normally gets his dinner at about 4:30 p.m. But he starts to get hungry about 3 p.m.

After that hour the last few days, he has been throwing himself up on me, then at my "What? What?" leading me not to the source of a sound (such as the phone, the door, or the call of my name) but to the kitchen and cocking his head at the food bowl.

I'm dealing with that by following him to the food bowl, then saying nothing but ignoring him pointedly and walking back to my office. Sooner or later he'll get the idea that I'm on to him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

High-tech service dogs

A service dog at Georgia Tech's FIDO project pulls a rope tug to send a message from an electronic device on its vest.

At Georgia Tech, there’s an interesting new service-dog project with a terrible name: Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations. Good thing they call it FIDO for short.

Its researchers are applying high-tech electronics to service-dog vests to expand the tasks the dogs can perform.

For instance, if its handler falls out of a wheelchair, the dog might pull a rope tug on its vest that causes an attached speaker to say, “Pardon me, but my owner needs your attention.”  

Same thing with diabetics whose blood sugar drops to a perilous level, or epileptics about to have a seizure. Similar  messages could be transmitted as text to nearby relatives or medical personnel.

FIDO is also experimenting with other kinds of tools besides rope tugs: bite sensors and touch screens for the dogs’ noses.

For deaf members of service animal teams, the dogs could use the technology to send text messages to smartphones warning the handlers of unseen perils, such as tornado warning sirens on twister-prone areas of the Great Plains.

In my case, it would be nice when I’m driving if Trooper could tug a rope to tell me about fire or police sirens. Of course sending a text message to a driver’s smartphone isn’t a good idea, but a big tablet like an iPad could be mounted to the dash to display such messages visibly.

That would also help with my turn signals, which I always seem to forget are on.

This technology has lots of potential.

Here are a couple of links to the Georgia Tech scheme:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Trooper's first book signing

Trooper anchors the floor while Debby reads passages from Henry's new mystery novel Tracking the Beast at Centuries & Sleuths, Forest Park, Ill., on April 17.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Service dogs and churches

Sometimes it's the service dog handler who's at fault in a confrontation over discrimination.

In the Tampa Bay Times the other day, there was a story about veterans suffering from PTSD who were having trouble getting their highly trained dogs accepted as service animals. One told about how a nun and a priest shooed him out of a Catholic church where he’d gone to pray. He was humiliated and upset.

It was all a misunderstanding, the bishop said. He’d been told the animal was a guard dog, not a service dog.

Not until the end of the story did the reporter reveal that churches are specifically exempt from the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They are not bound by law to open their doors to service dog teams.

The only exception is when a church hosts a public event, such as a bazaar or pancake supper where items are sold and the general public is invited.

The veteran, who seemed unaware of the religious exemption, should have asked ahead if he could bring his dog. The result probably would have been different.

Not long ago, before taking Trooper with me to a funeral at an Episcopal church in Evanston, I called the day before to ask if the dog could accompany me.

"Sure," replied the rector. "Thanks for the heads-up."

Sometimes it’s easier to reverse the adage and ask permission rather than beg forgiveness afterward.

By the way, private homes are also exempt from the ADA. We have good friends who like Trooper but don't want animal hair and dander in their house. That's OK. They just come to our condo for wine and cheese—and they always bring a bottle. Everybody's happy.

Friday, April 15, 2016


Debby, Ellie, Trooper and Henry during a Show 'n Tell earlier this week,
Chalk up another first for Trooper: His maiden performance in front of an audience.

My ten-year-old granddaughter Ellie had asked me to bring my service dog to her suburban Washington, D.C., school for a little show 'n tell about how a deaf grandfather/author and schnauzer mix service dog team work together.

Ellie proved to be an adept mistress of ceremonies, introducing the subject and eliciting questions from the fourth graders.

We talked about the books and deafness, and Ellie held up copies of my nonfiction titles. She told about lipreading and explained the meaning of the title of my memoir What’s That Pig Outdoors? The children seemed especially interested in that.

The youngsters clearly had been thinking about deafness when they asked, “If you could not hear, how did you learn in elementary school?” They also wanted to know if I played a musical instrument (yes, very badly) and participated in sports.

Then we took up the subject of service dogs.

The class wanted to know where Trooper came from, how he was trained, and what he did for me. Their questions were remarkably penetrating for fourth graders, and even the bumptious boys paid particular attention. Nothing holds a kid’s attention like a small dog.

Through it all Trooper lay quietly at my feet as a well-trained service animal should.

Then it came time for him to perform.

Partly to insure his cooperation—he had never before encountered an audience of any kind, let alone youngsters—Ellie and I had decided that she would do the name call and door knock simultaneously. We’d practiced it several times at home.

While everyone held their breath, Ellie went behind the classroom door, closed it, and knocked while calling “Henry!”

Trooper immediately leaped up on me and at my “What? What?” led me straight to the door.

He absolutely nailed it. 

We were all proud. Including Trooper.

Afterward came a round of petting, and then we made our goodbyes.

Trooper's a star.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Having Trooper certainly has made my life easier. I feel less alone and isolated when Debby’s out of the house and, when out on walks, more confident that I won’t be overrun by something unseen. And I’m more self-assertive—so much so that folks sometimes think I’m spoilin’ for a fight.

That last has to do with service-dog politics.

Federal law mandates that service animals and their owners have the right to go anywhere in public, including restaurants and shops. They are not required to be registered, or to carry papers or other identification, because the burden of proof should never be on people with disabilities. They’ve got other things to deal with.

This bothers a lot of uninformed people and gives unscrupulous ones the fraudulent idea that they can pass off their pets as service animals by buying vests, leashes and faked certificates on the Internet that they think proclaims the animal's "right" to go anywhere.

As a result, Trooper and I will occasionally attract the stink eye from skeptics who just can’t believe such a small dog is legit. (Size hardly matters with a hearing dog.) 

To others, Trooper’s signal orange vest proclaims him to be a service dog, and it is emblazoned with an official State of Michigan registered service-animal seal. (Michigan offers a new and voluntary ID registration program that very likely will be useful in situations where service dog fraud is suspected and businesses are frustrated.)

We've been lucky. For the most part, people in Evanston, a liberal, highly educated and remarkably enlightened community, readily accept Trooper as a genuine assistance animal.

Elsewhere we have run into difficulty, but only occasionally. A Skokie supermarket worker, for instance, snarled in passing that dogs weren’t allowed in the store, and Debby immediately lodged a complaint with the manager. (If you think I’m pugnacious, you should see her in action.)

One Chicago cab driver didn’t want to allow Trooper in his taxi, claiming that he wasn’t “big enough” to be a real service dog and anyway he would have to have his cab fumigated afterward. Debby quickly set him right, and there was no further trouble, especially since Trooper rode all the way home in my lap.

An overeager gatekeeper at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe insisted that both Trooper and I wear large green tags proving that we had been officially admitted. I protested. It felt as if we were being singled out and forced to wear a Scarlet Letter. It turned out afterward that the tags were entirely optional and intended to tip off security to the legitimacy of our presence. That’s security’s problem, I said, not mine. The Garden apologized and said it’d re-educate the help.

A hotel in Winslow, Arizona, said it would accept Trooper as a service dog provided I signed a pet release promising to reimburse the hotel if he trashed the place. He’s not a pet, I responded, but a working animal, an item of medical equipment that the IRS recognizes as a legitimate deduction. The hotel quickly backed down. I suspect the release may have been the hotel’s way of distinguishing genuine from false. No real service-animal handler, knowing the letter of the law, would sign such an document.

When presented with what might be a fake service dog, most business people just shrug. It’s easier for them to accept a possible fraud than suffer a lawsuit from a genuine service animal handler. Shops and restaurants can banish ill-behaved dogs, but it’s not always easy to distinguish between real and fake. 

I do think that whenever possible, it’s much more sensible for an service-dog handler to try to educate rather than litigate after incidents of discrimination—and that voluntary official identification schemes like Michigan’s are a step in the right direction.

Fortunately, some states are passing laws making service dog fraud a misdemeanor and, when repeated, a felony, although I have yet to hear of an actual case being brought against a pet owner.

Why is all this so important to me? Why are my hackles so easily raised?

Deaf people of my generation largely were raised to make as little noise as possible. Let your talents take you places, we were told. You're lucky to have them. Don't rock the boat by asking for more.

Times have changed. Not until well after my retirement ten years ago did I truly understand that I'm a member of a recognized minority—Persons with Disabilities. As with other minorities such as African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and members of the LGBTQ community, PWDs historically have achieved social justice only with much effort, including yelling and shouting, pushing and shoving. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed a quarter of a century ago, but there's still work to do.

Don’t ask us to be “patient” and “reasonable” in the face of discrimination, as well-meaning white Americans told civil rights firebrands back in the 1950s and '60s. Polite deference has never budged the privileged and entrenched.

We’re entitled to our rights. Now. Not at some vague time in a dim promised land.

That's why I'll make a fuss over discrimination.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Trooper on his space-age floor mat, made for finicky cats.
We have just returned from another train trip to the East Coast, during which Trooper made great strides in his service-dog training.

First, he now holds his “down-stay” almost perfectly, without getting up after a few seconds to investigate interesting things. He seems to realize that it’s his job to remain in one place, not a trick to perform whenever he feels like it. Whenever we go into a restaurant or a hotel lobby, on command he’ll immediately lie down—and stay down.

Part of his success, we think, is the little $20 “cat mat” we bought on the Internet for his use on hard and cold floors, which often caused him to be restless. The lightweight, 20-inch-by-27-inch zippered mat is faced on top with fleece and on the bottom with nonskid rubber, and contains an insert of space-age metal foil that reflects his body heat. When we unroll the mat and spread it on the floor, he immediately parks himself atop it.

The second advance: He now seems to understand that whenever we get off the train at a “fresh air stop,” as Amtrak calls its brief smoking pauses, he is expected to have a pee, and right away. The trick is to present him with a tree or scraggly bush, and to do so six to nine hours after the last whiz. If he doesn’t feel the urge, he won’t go. It’s as simple as that, but it took us a while to learn the lesson.

We now know the particulars of the best rest stops all along the route of the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington, D.C. At the very top are Toledo, Ohio (11:39 p.m. eastbound, 5:08 a.m. westbound), and Cumberland, Maryland (9:20 a.m. eastbound, 7:17 p.m. westbound). The former features a line of trees on the east end of the station, and the latter a collection of weeds and bushes.

With a dog such matters are never piddling.

ADDENDUM April 13:  I should add that our habit of informing Amtrak that we are traveling with a service dog—giving train crews a heads-up on the manifest is always a good idea— paid a small but unexpected bonus on that trip.

When we boarded Train 80, the Carolinian, at Richmond (Va.) Staples Mill station for the two-hour trip to Alexandria, the two business class attendants were waiting at trainside. "Are you the Kisors?" one said. "We have two seats together reserved for you at the end of the car."

And so they were. That was a nice touch.